Congo pardons 24 critics to ease political tension
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By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congo's government announced pardons for 24 jailed critics of President Joseph Kabila on Friday in a bid to ease tension ahead of a presidential election set for November.
The opposition considers the detained politicians and democracy activists to be political prisoners and the apparent olive branch may blunt international criticism of the government over its human rights record.
It could also put opposition leaders on the defensive over their demand that they will hold pre-election talks only once political prisoners are released and if Kabila agrees to step down in December at the end of his second and final term.
"The government ... has decided to take measures to ease tensions," Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba told a news conference, announcing the prisoners would be freed.
Kabila's opponents accuse him of trying to cling to power in Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that has not seen a peaceful change of government since independence in 1960.
The government says it lacks the money and resources to hold an election this year and the top court says Kabila can stay in power until the vote. The election commission says it will take over a year to enroll millions of voters.
Opposition leader Joseph Olengankhoy said the government should also pardon Moise Katumbi, a top presidential candidate who in June was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison for real estate fraud.
"The main people who are supposed to participate in the dialogue ... (over the election) are not being freed," he told Reuters, referring to two party leaders accused of sexual assault and real estate fraud respectively.
His comment appeared to undermine the position of the African Union facilitator of the election talks, former Togolese prime minister Edem Kodjo, who welcomed the pardons and said talks would begin next week.
Opposition leaders say Kodjo favors the government and they want him removed as a mediator as a condition for the talks.
At the same time, there was confusion over how many of those pardoned were actually still in prison. Only four remained in jail, said Georges Kapiamba, a leading human rights activist.
They are pro-democracy activists arrested in what the United Nations and human rights groups said was a crackdown on freedom of expression ahead of the election.
Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala were charged with plotting against Kabila following their arrest at a March 2015 workshop to promote youth participation in politics. Youth activist Jean-Marie Kalonji was held in December, while Christopher Ngoyi was arrested during anti-government protests in January 2015.
In another move to ease tension, the government reopened two television stations controlled by opposition politicians. It said a third such station will remain closed.
(Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Richard Balmforth)
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